EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
The last interview we had in SKM with sensei Shojiro Koyama 8th Dan JKA, based in Phoenix, Arizona, was in issue No. 18, February 1989. So, this is very interesting to read the words and thoughts of this highly regarded Shotokan sensei some twenty-odd years later. Even in the first interview you could see that the philosophical aspects of the art were equally as important to Koyama sensei as the technical aspects, which comes across even more so in this latest interview. He is quoted as saying... “After a lifetime of experience I understand that the hardship and struggle must be incorporated – in the form of character development – into one’s training in order to improve one’s performance. My karate philosophy reflects my belief that under adverse circumstances and conditions of struggle, a person’s true character emerges. This is true in life and in the microcosm of life that karate represents.”
I have to thank several of sensei Koyama’s students for their tremendous help with this interview which would not have been possible without them. So, a big thank you to Mike Pietrobono, Duane Nagata and Jackie Martinez.
I find it very interesting that nearly all serious karateka change their opinions about kata as they get older and gravitate towards a kata based training regime. A perfect example being the article in this edition by Colin Smith. I don’t know him personally but I’m led to believe that he was an awesome dojo-kumite fighter and competitor in his younger days. Now, however his focus appears to have shifted towards kata, as you’ll see.
I find as I get older I prefer training alone. Of course it’s totally necessary to do partner drills and applications but the real essence for me is trying to capture the feeling of karate (movements/techniques) and in my view there is no better way of trying to do this than simply practising kata. To me it’s self expression, just like art, dance or music. I think also that it’s important to do kata softly sometimes but still at normal speed (especially for older karate-ka). There is no need for all that heavy kime in my opinon, leave all that for the younger karateka. In fact many senior karateka who began in the 1960/70’s have said that the Shotokan taught by the first group of Japanese Senseis who spread Shotokan worldwide, was a karate especially suited to young people as they themselves were very young. Many of them straight out of the JKA instructors course and still only in their 20’s. I’m not saying that once past 55 you should practice karate like Tai Chi (not that there is anything wrong with that). But you can still be very dynamic without heavy contraction of the muscles. Soft does not mean weak! For me personally, I feel my power has increased just through being more relaxed and using ‘whip technique’ or as many people call it, ‘double-hip technique’. However, do whatever suits you best, we are all different.
Good health, good training. Editor.
FITTING YOUR OWN SKIN. By John Cheetham.
I know I have written quite a similar article to this in SKM (issue 85 October 2005) but the older I get the more I realise that this is such an important point; namely making karate fit your own physical and personal makeup. The first thing that I want to say is, that in my experience and after careful observation of karateka over forty years, one has to ‘change’ their karate as they age because the worst thing you can do is try to train like a twenty year old person when you are sixty!! There may be the odd example of this not being the case but for certain, ‘generally’ this does not work and what happens is that these fifty/sixty year old’s get long term injuries that don’t go away and eventually may lead to stopping training altogether! What a pity that would be, karate should be for life!
We all practice this wonderful martial art, we all aspire to improve or at least maintain what we already have, which is often the case with older karateka. But what makes a karateka totally comfortable with their own karate even if they are only technically average, or physically not particularly athletic or flexible and don’t possess natural flare? I believe that it is by developing your own unique style using the principles of the style be it Shotokan, Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu or whatever.
Fitting your own karate skin can be a very long and tough job for the average karateka. If you are not naturally blessed with great athleticism or natural flexibility and strength, then the road is long and hard. However, if after many years of constant training under good guidance you can arrive at a point in your karate life when you actually stop worrying about doing it exactly “by the book” and find your own way of performing karate, comfortably, then whether it’s slightly wrong in technical terms, doesn’t really matter, if it suits your body, do it like that!
Does it really matter if your mawashi geri is only chudan height or in fact even gedan? Does it really count if you can’t get your back foot to point directly ahead when in zenkutsu dachi? Does it matter if you are the technically least gifted member of your dojo? The answer of course to all of this is – NO!
What matters is making karate for yourself; to suit your own physique and eventually making it your own. Of course, you could say that this is only possible after many years of training but what about the younger karateka, do they also have to wait all that time before fitting their very own karate skin? I think they do. However, it’s what they do in the first five or six years of training that counts.
Say what you like about strict, basic kihon practice, but one thing that it gives to students which goes way beyond getting arm and leg positions correct, is basic co-ordination of the body and also co-ordination of body movement. I’ve seen so many kyu grade students, usually around the green-belt level trying to do complex bunkai or tai sabaki movements and fail miserably not because the arm is in the wrong position or whatever, but because of a simple lack of body co-ordination. You can see straight off that they have not done enough work on basic training (kihon) and their attempts to perform more complex movements or techniques looks totally disorganised and uncoordinated.
Regarding basics: I used to teach at a dojo in Spain several years ago, they were very young students and as such, keen competitors. They were very good at sport kumite but one thing was drastically lacking in my opinion, and that was their ability to ‘block’, to defend! They struggled with even the most basic forms of pre-arranged sparring, e.g. gohon, sanbon, ippon kumite, and not because of their lack of fighting spirit or enthusiasm but simply because they did not practice any other form of kumite other than sport-style sparring.
This may have gone slightly off-track with regards to developing your own karate and learning how to fit your own karate skin, however, the point I am trying to make is that basic training, which seems to be far less fashionable these days in some quarters, is, in my opinion, the only way for the ‘average’ karate student to find and develop their own unique style (within a style). The odd technical genius will appear from time to time who does not have to take this route but they are few and far between. A really solid five/six years of basic training can be the springboard for many students to get a natural feel for their own karate and hence their own style of performing it, to fit their own karate skin.
To make karate suit your own body you have to work hard at the basic principles of the style. In Shotokan, hip-rotation is probably the best to work on if you are not technically gifted or naturally athletic or maybe have poor flexibility. Twisting/turning the torso from shomen to hanme, then reversing the action when defending and quickly changing defence into counter-attack, is a basic principle of the Shotokan style.
A brilliant example of this is Yahara sensei. He would be the first to admit that he does not possess great ankle flexibility, which many instructors sight as being a technical stumbling block? I disagree totally with that idea... You only have to look at photo’s of Yahara performing his karate to see that his ankle flexibility is not the same as some of the other famous instructors. Or better still, check out his kata on the old JKA 26 kata videos performing Heian Sandan, Kanku-sho and Unsu. Yet his hip rotation and truly dynamic body movement is second to none! Not many people can get their back foot perfectly pointing forward in zenkutsu-dachi, but does it really matter? No, in reality it doesn’t matter one bit and Mikio Yahara sensei certainly proves that.
Getting rid of even one or two bad habits can often work wonders for the average karateka. e.g. Like learning how to change your weight when stepping back, forwards or sideways simply by bending the knees sufficiently to compensate for this lack of ankle flexibility. Also by relaxing when in motion. Just those two points can improve an average karateka by making their movement far more economical and much, much smoother. It’s just a question of ‘timing’ the knee bend/weight transfer, to accommodate your own ankle flexibility, and also not being afraid of releasing your hips more to compensate for this lack of ankle suppleness.
Getting to grips with the ‘Basic Breathing’ principle is a must also. Namely, breath-in (inhale) when you are in transition from one movement to another, and breath out (exhale) when you want to make power (punches, strikes, etc). Note that I didn’t mention kicks or blocks, which I feel are better suited to breathing-in! That may seem controversial but I think kicks are better when they are fired out in a seemingly relaxed, effortless manner without a strong exhalation, or better still with no exhalation at all! Just do the kick! Just the technique! In fact it was the late Enoeda sensei who pointed this out to me around 1984. And crucially never hold your breath, which many karateka do!
Obviously this article is aimed primarily at karateka of an average physical ability who want to develop their karate to be as natural and comfortable as possible for themselves. Those blessed with natural athletic talent don’t have the same problems. Some karateka will never be good technically for various physical reasons but they can still make karate their own. Karateka of average ability and especially older karateka, can do themselves one very big favour, they can get themselves a lot fitter and stronger than they presently are. And it’s not rocket science. Even just twice a week doing a fifteen minute work-out of sit-ups, press-ups or weights and stretching can, together with your regular karate sessions work wonders!
My good friend Dr Bill Laich worked for a while some years ago with the Juventus (Italy) soccer team. He said that some players were technically far, far better than others. So, to balance this, he worked on developing the fitness and strength far more with the less gifted players. In a very short time they became more than a match for the techno wizards and were able to make maximum use of their own limited technique and movement. This idea can work exactly the same for karateka of all ages and eventually help in making your karate movement more economical. However, one guarantee to making karate your own is, as stressed earlier, the importance of a solid grounding in basic technique and of course learning to RELAX!
Many of the people who now focus on goshin – self-defence, have forgotten the fact that they too were drilled this way in the beginning.
An equally important aspect (some may even say ‘the’ most important aspect) of fitting your own karate skin (going beyond technique/movement etc) is being able to impose your own character, personality and spirit on your karate. This, however, is a completely different kettle of fish and a complex subject that needs a special article simply dealing with this aspect of training and I am not qualified to give psychological explanations or theories etc.
One aspect of karate that I have never been able to comprehend, is the idea of copying your sensei’s karate. Of course when you start karate obviously you copy your sensei’s movements but everyone is physically different and I feel it could be counter productive for many people in the long run, especially for older karateka.
Now, I’m not saying anything is wrong with this if that’s what they want to do, and I can actually relate to this because many years ago I was a professional musician (a drummer) and I was very influenced especially by two drummers, namely Jazz drummer Buddy Rich and Rock drummer Ginger Baker. However, I would use the word influenced, I did not try to copy their unique styles, that would have been fruitless as they were one-offs!
Although I don’t play drums anymore I occasionally sit-in with a Jazz group or Rock group if the opportunity arises in a bar or club (as can be seen by the photo).
But getting back to karateka, copying (or trying to copy) a master just makes no sense to me, you have to develop your own style depending on your physical and mental make-up. There’s nothing worse than a poor copy in my opinion.
I’ve seen first hand students copying various senseis’ unique karate with little success. A few years ago we had a student training at our dojo and he tried very hard to copy his (famous) sensei’s style, the problem was that it didn’t work for him, he looked and moved like a robot! It just did not suit his physical make-up or way of moving, but having said that he was one of the nicest, most polite karateka you could wish to meet. I always wanted to say to him, “Look, this is not working for you, you have to discover your own feel of doing karate in a more natural way.” But I never said it!
I’ve written this before but it’s a good example of what I mean about copying... In the 1980’s hundreds, if not thousands of Shotokan students here in the U.K. tried to copy the karate of former British KUGB Champion Frank Brennen. They copied his stances, his kata, his kiai, his fighting style, the whole works, but I never saw anyone come anywhere near Frank’s ability, not even close! Because he was quite unique, he had developed his own (Shotokan) style and it perfectly fitted his own karate skin.
I think another big problem with many karateka is either they ‘try’ too hard or they don’t put in enough effort, they don’t try hard enough! The latter can be sorted- out and helped-out far easier than the people ‘trying’ too hard. When you ‘try’ to do something, straight away the words ‘stress and tension’ enter the equation. You so often see karateka getting angry with themselves when they can’t do something and usually it’s because they are ‘trying’ too hard to do it!
Teachers of languages always make this point. They advise: instead of ‘trying’ to learn new words or phrases, just relax more and concentrate, read and listen carefully, don’t ‘try’ to remember things, let it happen.
The same can apply to karate training, we should just be patient and remember, as many masters of the art have said many times before.....
“You learn karate, step by step.”